Not Even Donald Trump Could Reverse Coal’s Decline

Donald Trump pleased the crowd at a rally at the Charleston Civic Center in May 2016 when he put on a hard hat presented by the West Virginia Coal Association.

Donald Trump embraced coal during his 2016 campaign.  The crowd at a Charleston rally four years ago broke into wild applause when he told them, “I’m thinking about miners all over this country.  We’re gonna put the miners back to work. We’re gonna get those mines opened.”

It has not worked out that way. In fact, employment and production are levels are behind where they were when he took office. We will get to the reasons for that in a moment.

But first, the Trump administration has tried to lend a helping hand to coal. Taylor Kuykendall, energy and mining reporter for S&P Global Market Intelligence, reported recently on those steps.

“The administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, put an end to an Obama-era stream rule regulating coal mines, replaced emissions rules on power plants, lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing, proposed a plan to incentivize coal generation, facilitated an export deal for coal to Ukraine, paused a health study related to mountaintop removal and more,” Kuykendall reported.

Those measures were welcomed by the industry, but there were other forces at work, market forces that are making thermal coal less marketable. Add in the impact of the pandemic and coal companies’ backs are against the wall.

Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that White Stallion Energy LLC and Lighthouse Resources Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Those companies operate thermal coal mines in Illinois, Indiana, Montana and Wyoming.

The biggest blow to the thermal coal industry in this region came last year when Murray Energy went bankrupt.  Owner Bob Murray, who has since died, was an active fundraiser and vocal supporter of Trump.

Metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel, has fared better than thermal coal because of exports, but that is a highly volatile market, subject to significant swings in demand and employment.

Trump’s promise to “bring those miners back” has not materialized.  Kuykendall reports that coal mine employment fell to 40,458 jobs in the third quarter, down 23 percent from the first quarter of 2017 when Trump took office.  Coal production is down nearly one-third (31.5 percent) in the third quarter compared with the first quarter of 2017.

Coal employment has also dropped in West Virginia.  The WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research reports that 13,191 miners were working in West Virginia when Trump was sworn in.  Employment did increase in 2018 and 2019, but it fell to just over 11,000 in the second and third quarters of this year.

Clearly the pandemic has had a significant impact.  But that is not the only reason. More power companies are reducing their reliance on coal, while shifting to natural gas and renewables. Just last month, First Energy, which serves the northern and eastern parts of the state, announced a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.  American Electric Power, which serves Southern West Virginia, is on a similar track.

President Trump gave hope to West Virginia coal miners and the many people who work for the companies that supply the mines.  They rewarded him with an overwhelming victory in West Virginia in 2016 and again in 2020.

Some may believe that Trump broke his promise, or at the very least over promised what he would do for coal, but it is also possible that not even a pro-coal president could stop the hemorrhaging in the industry.


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